Archive for May, 2009

A Week Off From Blogging

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

You’d be surprised at how exhausting it is to churn out one to four posts a day, with at least one containing an original thought and most others some small spin. Or at least, you’d be surprised at how exhausting it is in addition to a full-time job.

So, to start the summer, I’m going to take a week off.

Now that Judge Sotomayor has been leaked as Obama’s nominee, I realize I don’t have much of a dog in this fight – at least not so far. My big concern for this nominee is their position on executive power. Sotomayor doesn’t have much of a public record on these issues – as Charlie Savage explained, she:

has never worked in the federal executive branch and sits on a court that hears few executive power cases.

I would have had to comment and get excited if the nominee had been Elena Kagan (negatively) or Diane Wood (positively). Or Harold Koh, though he wasn’t on the list this time around (positively.)

Matt Drudge is already on the case – bringing racial issues to the forefront and making the innuendo-driven case against the Judge – while acknowledging the opposition will be futile.

I’ll leave this fight to others. For this week, it’s time to take a break.

Of course, I reserve the right to jump in if I feel so compelled – so check back if something extraordinary happens in politics.

I will – of course, continue to Twitter this week. If you haven’t already, follow me there.

Irony Watch: Cheney on Euphemisms

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

From Yglesias:

Benjy Sarlin, over email: “Dick Cheney, who brought us the phrase ‘enhanced interrogation methods,’ is currently railing against those who use ‘euphemisms’ to obscure the debate over national security.”

Theories of the Financial Crisis: Greed

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

George Will may seek to defend greed (Or maybe not – it’s actually kind of hard to tell.) – along with Ayn Rand and other market fundamentalists.

But just about everyone else lists it as a fundamental cause of the financial crisis. Will tries to make the case that free markets punish greed. But what Will presumes is that an unregulated market is a free market – and on this fundamental point he is wrong. The market Will describes is not one heavily regulated by the government – but it is regulated by ebay which in this instance takes on the role of the government for this small market. The financial markets on Wall Street though were largely unregulated – especially the shadow banking system (which was created in such a way as to be unregulated) – and they were in this sense free from government interference. But they were controlled by a small number of individuals – and in this sense were part of a world where freedom was available only to a princely few. Will makes the point that greed is an immutable human characteristic – and thus does not account for the booms and busts of our business cycle (and of financial crises such as this.) But what does is the combination of perverse incentives for short-term profit (indeed a form of legal fraud), a relaxation of the regulations designed to keep the markets stable that tends to occur when Republicans have power, and greed.

There has always been an historical wariness in America about the combination of greed and concentrations of wealth – focusing on a national bank, on various financiers, on “the malefactors of great wealth” and indeed, on Wall Street. The people, in their wisdom, could see that this concentration of financial power undermined the democratic distribution of political power. But by the 1980s, there was an additional reason to be wary – as Ronald Reagan unleashed a money revolution. This money revolution – like all revolutions – was the commingling of many forces – globalization, the ad-hoc Bretton Woods II agreement, and the relaxation of regulations and reduction of taxes. This revolution helped to concentrate an increasing percentage of the world’s wealth in the hands of a small number of Wall Street (and also London) bankers. The function of these bankers – their expertise – was to balance risk and profit to their customers’ satisfaction – to maximize profit for themselves and their customers while minimizing (or controlling for) risks. As a small percentage of individuals accumulated more and more wealth around the world, these individuals entrusted more and more of this wealth to Wall Street bankers – and the more money the bankers controlled, the bigger their cut. As Michael Osinski explained in a piece for New York magazine:

When you’re close to the money, you get the first cut. Oyster farmers eat lots of oysters, don’t they?

This closeness to the money created an easy money culture – in which enormous sums money were distributed whether they was deserved or not and the culture began to prize attempts to satisfy the bottomless desire that is greed. Wall Street bankers took on the culture of gamblers – except with the market going up, everyone made money. The long boom began to create perverse incentives – as risks began to seem safer, as luck and a rising tide and short term profits made everyone seem like geniuses, they all became accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Financial innovations sought to overturn many of “the fundamental rules of banking” including “that default risk is an inevitable liability of the business.” The combination of innovation and the culture of greed and gambling led to greater and greater risks being taken.

As steady foundations of banking – both as a business and as a culture deteriorated – and as the cautionary tales of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Liar’s Poker morphed into guides – a new culture of excess developed – excessive greed, excessive pay, excessive drinking, excessive spending, excessive personal risks, and eventually excessive professional risks. Wall Street bankers began to betray all the symptoms of the easy money culture – like gamblers whose knew their earnings were ephemeral and that every up would be followed by a down to be followed by an up – as long as they could stay at the table. But as Matt Taibbi wrote,  “this was a casino unique among all casinos, one where middle-class taxpayers cover the bets of billionaires…”

Osinski tells a story of how this easy money culture affected the individuals:

Now that I was spending more time on the floor, I wondered why the men’s room always stank. Then one afternoon at three, when I was in there taking a leak, I discovered the hideous truth. Traders had a contest. Coming in at eight, they never left their desks all day, eating and drinking while working. Then, at three o’clock, they marched into the men’s room and stood at the wall opposite the urinals. Dropping their pants, they bet $100 on who could train his stream the longest on the urinals across the lavatory. As their hydraulic pressure waned, the three traders waddled, pants at their ankles, across the floor, desperately trying to keep their pee on target. This is what $2 million of bonus can do to grown men.

This easy money culture warped the incentives at Wall Street firms as well – as they were structured in such a way as to generously reward short-term success (without controlling sufficiently for long-term failure.) Rather than being paid large salaries, most of a banker’s income was handed out in enormous bonuses based on yearly performance. As long as fees were generated, as long as this quarter’s profits were growing – bankers would be rewarded with enough profits to last a lifetime. This alone is enough of an incentive to cause massive fraud. But at the same time, the culture of Wall Street ensured that money would be spent ridiculously, ostentatiously, and quickly. 

Perhaps no one has been more articulate in his visceral disgust for the excesses of Wall Street than Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone

[I]t’s time to admit it: We’re fools, protagonists in a kind of gruesome comedy about the marriage of greed and stupidity. And the worst part about it is that we’re still in denial – we still think this is some kind of unfortunate accident, not something that was created by the group of psychopaths on Wall Street whom we allowed to gang-rape the American Dream.

The story of AIG – in its way – symbolizes better than anything else what this culture did to Wall Street. Back to Taibbi:

AIG is what happens when short, bald managers of otherwise boring financial bureaucracies start seeing Brad Pitt in the mirror. This is a company that built a giant fortune across more than a century by betting on safety-conscious policyholders – people who wear seat belts and build houses on high ground – and then blew it all in a year or two by turning their entire balance sheet over to a guy who acted like making huge bets with other people’s money would make his dick bigger.

A culture of greed and excess – a lack of respect for tradition – a market free only to a princely few – negligence bordering on fraud with regards to the evaluation or risk – and an increasing percentage of the world’s wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Together, these were the recipe for this financial disaster. 

The problem with greed is that it is unsustainable. It exists in a cycle, like all unsustainable desires. Government regulation, like morality, seeks to control and channel greed in less destructive ways – to mitigate the effects of this cycle. The true cause of this financial crisis was not greed – but the ideology that held that finally the immutable human vice of greed had been overcome with clever financial innovation and the magic of the market.

(more…)

A Truth Commission

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

While not rejecting the idea of prosecutions for clear cases in which the law was broken, there seems to be a growing consensus about the necessity of a truth commission. It has become more and more clear that the fault lies within our system as much as it does in particular individuals. Jeffrey Record reviewing Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side [pdf] for the Army War College journal, Parameters quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis whose insight points towards both why we need a truth commissin of a type – and why prosecution is not the most effective option (h/t Tom Ricks):

[T]he greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

This goes to the argument that Bush administration apologists keep making – that these officials were acting in good faith, were panicked, and though they may have broken some rules, they did so to protect American lives. But this is precisely what Brandeis saw was the most serious danger to liberty. 

Tom Ricks gives his opinion of what we need – basing his argument on military strategy – rather than the protection of our way of life:

Just because you have an embarrassing problem, you shouldn’t try to hide it, because dealing with it may prepare you for an even bigger challenge down the road. So let’s get the torture and interrogation situation straightened out before the next big terrorist attack. My preference, as I’ve stated before, is for a truth and reconciliation commission that offers an amnesty period during which people would be invited to step forward. Anyone not ‘fessing up during that time would face the possibility of prosecution. Again, I think this effort should target those who departed from American history and made torture national policy.

Maureen Dowd has also come around – and she too is looking at the perverse effect on our system of checks and balances that not following up on this matter is having:

I used to agree with President Obama, that it was better to keep moving and focus on our myriad problems than wallow in the darkness of the past. But now I want a full accounting. I want to know every awful act committed in the name of self-defense and patriotism. Even if it only makes one ambitious congresswoman pay more attention in some future briefing about some future secret technique that is “uniquely” designed to protect us, it will be worth it.

Stephen Walt’s Insights

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Due to a website outage for most of the day, none of my posts went up today.

So for your national security/politics/etc fix today, I suggest you look to Stephen Walt – whose blog I just discovered, although I’ve been familiar with his work for some time. Some thought-provoking excerpts from the past week or so in Walt bloggery:

On which president’s foreign policy Obama seems most similar: Nixon…

In short, he’s trying to deal with Bush’s legacy by cutting losses, resolving conflicts, and getting help from our allies, in order to buy time for economic and military recovery. Sounds almost Nixonian (or maybe Kissingerian).

On his favorite topic, Israel:

Some readers may think that Hastings is employing a double-standard, or that he is “singling Israel out” for criticism. They could point out that Israel’s adversaries have often lied or prevaricated too, and that they have done plenty of brutal things themselves. They could also remind us that Israel’s neighbors are hardly models of tolerance or open discourse and that there is a far more open debate about these issues within Israel than there is in Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Syria. I agree, and the willingness of some Israelis to confront the past honestly and to question its present policies remains an admirable feature of Israeli society.  

But there is no double-standard at work here, and comparisons with states whose behavior may be worse miss the point. Israel’s actions are not being judged against the conduct of a Sudan or Burma, but by the standards that people in the West apply to all democracies. It is the standard Americans expect of allies who want to have a “special relationship” with us. It is the standard Israel imposes on itself when it tells everyone it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Israel is being expected to behave like Britain or Canada or France or Japan and not like some one-party military dictatorship, and it is certainly expected not to deny full political and civil rights to millions of Palestinians who now live under its constant control.  These other democracies eventually gave up their colonial enterprises; Israel is still trying to consolidate its own. 

On the most effective imbalance of power:

Unlike Preble, I still think a margin of superiority is a good thing, but I agree that we’ve got a much bigger margin than we need and we often use it in the wrong way. Instead of exploiting our favorable geopolitical position and acting like an offshore balancer, and playing hard-to-get so that other major powers will bear a greater share of the burden, the United States has declared itself to be the “indispensable power” and decided that it’s got to take charge nearly everywhere. The result, as you may have noticed, has not been all the salutary. Instead of stabilizing the key strategic areas of the world — something we used to be pretty good at — in recent years the United States has been an activelydestabilizing force. And instead of spreading U.S. values, we’ve ended up undermining them here at home and discrediting them abroad.

Moreover, as Preble notes, excessive U.S. dominance encourages others to act irresponsibly. To use Barry Posen’s apt terms, states either “free ride” on Uncle Sam (think Japan, or much of Europe), or they engage in “reckless driving” (think Israel, Georgia last summer, or maybe Pakistan), because they are confident we’ll bail them out if they get into trouble.  

Conservative Empathy

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Doug Kendall and Dahlia Lithwick take on the conservative attacks on empathy by pointing out the hypocrisy of the position:

Every time Justice Antonin Scalia writes a habeas opinion that begins with the depiction of a gruesome murder, he is evincing empathy toward the victim. When Chief Justice John Roberts battled for the rights of white schoolchildren facing arduous bus trips and educational hardship due to school integration programs in Seattle and Kentucky, he was evincing empathy for the white “victims” of affirmative action. It’s a patent falsehood that liberal judges weep and bleed for their plaintiffs while conservative jurists treat plaintiffs with stony indifference. And smart advocates on either side, knowing that, seek out “sympathetic plaintiffs” for litigation precisely because they are attempting to appeal to some part of the court’s lizard brain; the part that does more than mechanically apply the law to the case.

I think that’s about right.

David Brooks’s Special Place in Washington

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

I’ve written before about David Brooks’s special place in Washington – as the almost always 

reliable barometer of the opinions and beliefs of the Washington establishment (and I don’t mean that as an insult.) The figure he cuts is a rather odd combination of an amateur (but insightful) anthropologist and a insider protecting the system.

There is an honesty about him, and his writing – an earnestness.

This observation from last Friday’s column struck me as probably true – and worrying:

If you read the C.B.O. testimony and talk to enough experts, you come away with a stark conclusion: There are deep structural forces, both in Medicare and the private insurance market, that have driven the explosion in health costs. It is nearly impossible to put together a majority coalition for a bill that challenges those essential structures. Therefore, the leading proposals on Capitol Hill do not directly address the structural problems. They are a collection of worthy but speculative ideas designed to possibly mitigate their effects.

In his way, I think David Brooks represents the best of what a columnist can offer – honest, informed opinions of intelligent people trying to make sense of the world around them.

We Are All Guilty

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

We are all guilty.

Because we live in a democracy.
Because we did not ask enough questions.
Because we did not stand forthrightly for American values.
Because we were afraid.

As figure after figure from the Bush administration has pleaded 9/11 when confronted by the facts of their administration’s wholesale and preemptive surrender of American values – as they instituted programs of lawless imprisonment, torture, illegal spying, and a misbegotten war justified under a profoundly un-American theory of the Presidency  – as Americans see how profoundly our nation went off course in the years after September 11th and are justifiably outraged – with all this, I honestly cannot say that I would have seen then as clearly as I see now what a betrayal, what a cowardly decision it was, to abandon our way of life and our Rule of Law. I am not sure I would have the moral clarity, the strategic vision to say, “It is not about them. It is about us [pdf.]”1 To declare that “I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is America.”

I’d like to think I would have seen what was going on with clarity – but I know as the fear of terrorism was fresh within me, and the anger – I know I did not ask enough questions. I felt safer knowing those in power would do everything possible to keep America safe.

But the fact that I realize my own sinful nature – imperfect, flawed – does not absolve those men and women who instituted these policies – of cruelty, torture, of an executive held above the law. If it is clearly found that any individual broke the law, they should be brought to justice.

I am also aware of the ancient ritual of scapegoating – as a society which fears its own sins places the blame for their collective miseries and flaws upon an animal or person. Whether one likes it or not, it is also certain that most Americans would have condoned torture among other transgressions in those years after September 11 – without a cultural memory of what the cost would be. The men and women of the Bush administration were acting on our behalf – with our implicit consent – when they committed these war crimes, these unconstitutional acts.

This is why I believe it would only be marginally more just to punish John Yoo than Charles Graner. Both men are guilty – but punishing them does not absolve the larger community or resolve our societal dilemma.

What needs to happen – what is more essential than justice – is for our nation to come to a consensus on how we will deal with terrorism. The biggest mistake Bush ever made was to fight a War on Terror on the “Dark Side.” In doing so, we chose to fight on the terrain most familiar to our opponents. And by unilaterally choosing to engage in a secret war without consulting with or even informing the American people on many issues – and even lying to them about what was being done – “We do not torture.” “We do not wiretap without a warrant.” – he undermined the very democracy he wanted to protect.

Armed with a theory of a unitary executive, he chose to protect our liberal democracy by acting as a benevolent (but elected) tyrant (on issues of national security) – eschewing all the advantages a democratic system, in which consent is freely given by people fully informed, in favor of the cheap, short-term advantages of a tyrant acting in secret asking people to trust his actions are to their benefit.

Rather than discussing what freedoms needed to be given up, whether our nation should give up it’s historical aversion to torture, what price we were willing to pay as a society in order to keep our way of life – he chose the path with the least resistance in the immediate term. George W. Bush had tragically learned the wrong lesson from September 11.

Yet even as he acted in secret – if we truly are a democracy – we are still responsible. We should have known. Maybe neither you nor I could have done anything – but together, we had the responsibility to. And if we’re honest, in the time after September 11, we may have even made the same flawed, awful decisions that that overmatched man did.

What we need today is to engage in that discussion that George W. Bush did not deign to – about whether American values are still relevant in a world threatened by terrorism. And we need to reach a consensus before we are attacked again. For if we do not, we will be less prepared to protect our way of life in the aftermath than we were on that Tuesday morning.

This is why we need a truth commission – charged with finding out who ordered what, who knew what when, what worked, what didn’t. We need a consensus, if our way of life is to survive.

  1. This quote is not exactly what McCain said. He said, “But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are” – but my version is snappier. []

Contra Taibbi: Fighting Them Over There So We Don’t Need to Fight Them Here

Monday, May 18th, 2009

The thing is, we’ve been listening to this stuff for so long that when we hear it, we don’t recoil in confused disbelief anymore — we’re so familiar with these arguments we’ve forgotten that they don’t make any sense. It’s similar to that other Bush-era standard: “We fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them here.”

I never understood what the hell that was all about. The best I could figure is that the people who were saying this think of the world like a big game of Risk, and they think that if we commit a big force to some place like Iraq, the “other side” will have to leave all his forces over there or something to keep us from moving through Eurasia. This might make sense in a real war, in a war-between-nations war, but it’s completely absurd in a conflict where the “other side” is actually hundreds if not thousands of different/unrelated actors and can successfully attack a country like the U.S. using just a few people at a time. Sending 160,000 troops to Iraq does absolutely nothing to prevent a terrorist group like al-Qaeda from sending over a couple of “exchange students” to dump botulinum toxin into the Akron reservoir.

That’s Matt Taibbi in a recent blog post. Given his explanation, he clearly is missing something.

One understanding of terrorism holds that acts of terrorism are a reaction to the fact that many people in the world have no say in how they are governed. They realize that who Americans elect as their president has a more of an impact on their lives than their local leaders. Yet – they have no vote in this matter – and few ways to affect what America does. Those who are especially frustrated and determined and who value life least see there is a way they can impact America – how they can make their views matter. They can commit an act of terrorism against America – or American interests.

This understanding of the root cause of terroism is implicit both in many liberal critiques of the War on Terror and in Bush’s democracy promotion. Liberal critiques tended to see our doubling down in our support of tyrants in the region as kong as they were anti-terrorist as contributing to the sense of alienation. The neoconservatives saw democracy as a kind of safety valve in which these frustrations could be channeled – which is why they were so focused on promoting it in the Middle East. 

If terrorism is the means by which people whose views are not represented make themselves heard by those who have the power to change their lives, then allowing them to fight us over there does make it less likely we will be attacked at home. It provides an outlet in which they can channel their displeasure – killing American soldiers. It’s easier to travel to Iraq or Afghanistan than to America – and to participate within structures already set up while attacking outsiders – than to work undercover in an American sleeper cell, plotting against the people with whom you have contact every day.

Taibbi is right that leaving ourselves vulnerable over there doesn’t preclude them from attacking us here – but that mis-states what the “fighting them over there” idea is about. The fact that we can be attacked over there provides a release valve for frustrations – in a way similar to having a democracy where people could vote anti-American politicians into office would. 

I’m not sure if I buy this theory. And it’s not clear that even if it is true, that the overall approach is effective – because after all, by responding to attacks on us, we probably create more ill-will than we have allowed to be “released.” But there is a coherent view behind this – and mocking it doesn’t make it less so.

Facebook Diplomacy

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Warning: This is going to sound a bit corny – but that should be considered part of it’s charm.

It is the responsibility of every citizen of the world to reach out to those others in the world who they do not understand. For example, it is their responsibility to reach out to people on the side of a conflict they do not understand. It is a responsibility to inform one’s self and to express one’s self in these situations.

This is especially true for Americans – as our government’s policies affect so much of the world – yet it often seems Americans know so little about what people around the world think.

It is the responsibility of everyone who thinks that the mainstream media is not conveying the truth about a situation to reach out themselves to try to figure out some portion of the truth they seek. 

This was always one’s responsibility – but in a previous age, it was difficult and time-consuming – often impossible. Today – this can be done so easily there is no excuse.

It is unlikely that any individual reaching out in this way will make a difference – but the collective impact would revolutionize politics and foreign policy. The cumulative effect would be to remove foreign policy from the elites – who travel the world and make such contacts as can be generally approximated now via the web. There is a definite place for such people – but it is never healthy when first-hand knowledge is so concentrated. Which is why we must enter an age of Facebook Diplomacy to create a better world. This type of outreach seems to be a logical outgrowth of the internet – and perhaps of the Obama campaign’s use of the internet to shape the political landscape.

I propose a few principles to guide this Facebook Diplomacy:

1. Be humble. Listen. Be curious. (It’s amazing how grateful people are to be heard.)

2. Always look to the other side – and try to understand without demonizing.

3. Honestly represent your views – being careful not to give the impression you agree when you do not.

4. Do not expect anyone to speak on behalf of their nation.